October 21, 2020

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Will Trump participate in the next two debates? The White House won’t commit.

There are two more presidential debates left before Election Day, but now, after the debacle of the first debate — 90 minutes dominated by insults, attacks and interruptions by President Trump — everything seems up in the air.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, whose members were frustrated that its marquee event was widely viewed as a failure, announced that it would propose a new format before Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. meet for their second debate on Oct. 15.

That idea was immediately rejected by Mr. Trump’s campaign. “Joe Biden is trying to work the refs,” said Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for the Trump campaign. “They shouldn’t be moving the goal posts and changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

In 2016, Mr. Trump often used the threat of withdrawing from debates to inject an element of uncertainty into the process, especially when he was in a vulnerable position; He even floated the idea of a boycott in the run-up to this year’s election, citing his concerns about the commission’s fairness.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not respond directly when asked if Mr. Trump would commit to participating in the two remaining debates with Mr. Biden, regardless of the rule changes the commission might announce.

“He thinks the only way there’s a fair debate is a change in the moderator and a change in the Democrat nominee,” she said. “He wants to debate, he plans on being at the debate, but he wants the rules to be fair and wants a fair exchange and doesn’t want rules that cover for certain candidates’ inability to perform well.”

Things have been so unsettled that Mr. Biden’s aides felt compelled to respond to a wave of speculation that there would be no more debates, announcing that he was not backing out. Why should he? By every measure, Mr. Biden had a good enough night, and there’s little reason, Democrats said, for him to do anything that would make him look wavering and take the spotlight off a struggling Mr. Trump. What’s more, the next debate is a town hall event with voters, the kind of format that should play to Mr. Biden’s strengths.

But might Mr. Trump, who left the stage to withering debate reviews, decide this is just not worth it? Some Democrats suggested that was exactly the way to interpret the fast slapdown by the Trump campaign of the debate commission’s announcement that it was changing the rules.

“If you think that the president gained nothing but trouble from that so-called debate, it’s very easy to imagine him using the proposed rules change as an excuse to skip the last two debates,” said James P. Manley, who was a senior aide to Harry Reid, the former Democratic leader of the Senate.

Still, there are less than five weeks left until Election Day, Mr. Trump is trailing in many polls, and he is running out of opportunities — ideal or not — to shake up the race. And it would seem out of character: Through his public life, Mr. Trump has always seemed more likely to run into the flames than run away from them.

Mr. Trump raised objections on Thursday to changing the rules for the next two debates and gave his performance on Tuesday night a glowing review, one that was at odds with a number of Republicans who said that the president was erratic and overly combative.

“Why would I allow the Debate Commission to change the rules for the second and third Debates when I easily won last time?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

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